an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

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a bonobo world 26: boys and girls at work and play

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Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna, brilliant women with great dress sense

In her introduction to The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote this: 

.. the truth is that anyone can clearly see that humanity is split into two categories of individuals with manifestly different clothes, faces, bodies, smiles, movements, interests and occupations; these differences are perhaps superficial; perhaps they are destined to disappear. What is certain is that for the moment they exist in a strikingly obvious way.

A whole book could easily be written – some already have – to expand on this apparently mundane observation. Today in the west, or the developed world, or Anglo-American or Euro-American society (I never know quite what to call it), there are no set rules, of course, about how people should dress, or behave, or work or play, gender-wise, but there are conventions and social pressures, and I’ve noted encouraging developments, as well as their opposite.

A close female friend expressed a certain despair/disdain the other day in telling me that Dr Jill Biden, aged 69, wore stilettos for her husband’s confirmation as US President. I share that friend’s conviction that stilettos should only be used as murder weapons. In any case men only wear stilettos when in drag, which is all too rare. 

On clothing and accessories, while today’s variety is inspiring and liberating for both sexes, one still sees frustrating gender-based tendencies everywhere. Frills and furbelows have long been all the go for female formal attire, while tuxes or frock-coats are de rigueur for males, compleat with ties, bowed or straight. These traditions tend to emphasise gender differences you’d never notice in bonobos, though there is a welcome playfulness of gender-swapping attire among the elites, seldom replicated in your local bar or restaurant. 

What has constantly surprised me, as a person who spent his youth in the sixties and seventies, when déclassé jeans and t-shirts, in colourful variety, were common and pleasantly informal, is that those decades didn’t establish a trend of ambisexual dress – just as I’ve been surprised that traditional marriage didn’t get thrown out as seemed to be on the cards in those days. Marriage today appears to represent much of human ambiguity – a commitment to monogamous ideals even while recognising their limitations, even their absurdity. Conservatives argue that loyalty is a much undervalued value, but it’s always been possible to have more than one loyal friend, with benefits. Bonobos manage to have a bunch of them. Bonobos aren’t being rad, they’re just being bonobos. Which raises the question, what is it, to be humans?

David Deutsch, in The beginning of infinity, celebrates and encourages our infinite possibilities, to find solutions, to expand our outlooks, to achieve outrageously amazing things. He writes of the value of optimism over pessimism, and progress over stasis. I’m largely in agreement, but with some reservations. He has nothing to say about community, for example. Community, it seems to me, has become ever more important as change has become more rapid. As Deutsch and others have pointed out, during the many thousands of years when humans lived the hunter-gatherer life, with no doubt many variations, life simply didn’t change from generation to generation. And as long as that life was sustainable, there was little need for new developments, new hunting or grinding implements, new forms of shelter or clothing. So, nobody was out of date or old-fashioned, there were no old fuddy-duddies you wouldn’t be seen dead with. In fact, quite the opposite – the elders would have been more expert at the latest technology, developed in the previous aeon, than the youngsters, who would marvel at how those old guys’ boomerangs always came back (okay, they were never actually intended to). Given this relatively static society, it’s hardly surprising that elders were more respected, for their skills, experience and store of communal lore, than today’s nursing home denizens. And, as always, I’m aware of the multifarious nature of modern human societies, static and otherwise, to which I have little access, beyond book-larnin. Most of these societies or cultures, though, are today forced to interact with others, creating identity confusions and divided loyalties by the brainload.

Anyway, sticking with the White Anglo-Saxon ex-Protestant culture I’m familiar with, I’m a bit shocked that, despite two or more waves of feminism in the last century or so, women are still earning less than men and paying more for what I would deem unnecessary accoutrements, including hairstyles, bling, fancy tattoos, make-up and the aforementioned frills and furbelows. I recently bought a ‘men’s’ stick deodorant, which seemed to me nothing more than an anti-perspirant, and which was identical to that of my female partner, only bigger, and cheaper! These are ‘first-world issues’, of course, but they reflect, in little, an exploitation of the feminine worldwide, which seems a hard nut to crack.  

There’s of course a thing about eternal youth, in regard to women, that should be addressed. Men in their fifties don’t wear make-up, at least not the ones I know. Quite a few women I know, in their fifties, and older, also don’t wear make-up, but let’s face it, most of them do – with all the expense, as well as the time and effort, this involves. They do it, presumably, to hide the effects of gravity, though gravity always wins, as Radiohead informs us. With men, apparently, gravity lends gravitas.

I’ve often – in fact, ever since adolescence  – imagined myself as female. Mostly lesbian female, though I did have an early period of male-male attraction. So, if I did turn out female, how would I behave, appearance-wise, now that I’m in my sixties? Would I wear an op-shop jacket, t-shirt (usually with some thought-bubble printing) and chino-type trousers, as I do now? I hope so. It’s a kind of unisex outfit for academic and sciencey people, the types I’ve always aspired to be. But unfortunately, feminists have recently written of the pink/blue divide in children’s clothing that’s stronger than ever, as well as the divide in toys – fighting, racing and danger versus dancing, cuddling and beauty. This appears to be driven by manufacturers and advertisers, who, like social media moguls, seem to derive a benefit from driving their customers down wormholes of like-mindedness. Not surprisingly, social psychologists find that children benefit from being more unisex in these choices – not a matter of turning them into their opposites, but seeing dolls and trucks as others see them, and generally being more colourful. And slowly, all too slowly, we’re following this advice, and seeing more male nurses and female truck-drivers than previously. Not to mention female white supremacists sporting submachine guns – but that’s only in the US, they do things differently there. And more males working in child-care? That’s another nut to crack.


Simone de Beauvoir, Le Deuxième Sexe (1949), new translation 2009.


Written by stewart henderson

January 29, 2021 at 12:59 pm

A bonobo world and other impossibilities 24: women and warfare (1)

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The following is re-posted and was first written on this blog in December 2018, but I’m doing this under a new title (with some changes) because it clearly belongs in this series.

female ring-tailed lemur – strong and sexy

I recently listened to a bit of historian Margaret McMillan, along with some military reps, on the radio talking about warfare past and future. It was recorded during a public talk on the topic. I’ve got her book, The Uses and Abuses of History, which I’ve not yet read, but I was struck by her pessimistic attitude. Of course she’s right to say that warfare isn’t about to disappear, and dog knows we have a proliferation of macho thugs on the global scene at present, but her somewhat dismissive description of Pinker’s thesis, that the world is getting less violent, rather irked me. She described the thesis as ‘persuasive but too positive’ or some such term (which struck me as odd if not disingenuous – obviously she wasn’t persuaded). To me, considering that, almost to the end of the nineteenth century, warfare was a way of life for many a European male, and that the so-called Great War showed so many people how disastrous zero-sum game nationalism and one-eyed patriotism can be, and how far we have come, generally, from seeing other cultures as ‘savage’ or backward, and especially how far we’ve progressed in multiculturalism over the past century or so, I can’t accept that we haven’t made great strides in reducing warfare among civilised nations in the 20th century and beyond. Not, of course, without great cost, in the early half of that century especially. Our knowledge of our own destructive capabilities has acted as something of a brake.

But it was a response during question time that has prompted me to write. MacMillan was asked whether things would be better if, say, the US President was a woman, or some such thing. Anyway the gist of the question was whether warfare would be reduced if women were in charge. Macmillan was again sceptical/pessimistic, citing Indira Ghandi’s record as India’s PM. Of course she could’ve cited others, like Margaret Thatcher, or even Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace prizewinner who’s been so much under fire for Burma’s treatment of its Rohingya population. But I found this response to be shallow and fatuous. The case of Aung San Suu Kyi is most telling – she’s largely a captive of the all-male military, all Buddhists like the all-male monks who’ve been most active in the Rohingya persecutions. But it’s the same for all female heads of state. Their cabinets and their political advisers are overwhelmingly male, they have to deal with a military sector which is entirely male, and a business sector which is much the same. All the power in all the lands you care to mention is massively male. Massively. In order to seriously answer the question ‘What if women were in charge?’ you have to imagine a ‘world turned upside down’. Anything less, as I say, would be a fatuous and shallow response. You would have to imagine a world with a more or less all-female political-military-business sector. And if you think that’s crazy, why don’t you think the current more or less all-male power situation is crazy?

The fact is that statistically, women are less aggressive than men. We can go into all sorts of genetic, hormonal, cultural and environmental reasons for this – and it’s important to explore all of that – but the fact itself is undeniable. It also appears that women are more collaborative – more able to work especially with other women. Of course women can be aggressive and highly competitive – I love women’s sports, but I notice that in women’s soccer and basketball I’ve never once seen the kind of all-in biffo that quite regularly spoils the men’s version of these sports. This is no accident (and nor is it necessarily a permanent feature – societies evolve, for better or worse).

Wars in the past have always been associated with manliness – not just physical warfare, but the kind of business and political warfare that Trump – the archetypal wannabe macho ‘winner’ – engages in. And in an increasingly interconnected and inter-reliant global scenario, this kind of warfare is proving more and more counter-productive.

I believe that one day – though hardly in the near future – we will socially evolve, out of sheer necessity, into civilisations in which women hold the balance of power. It won’t simply be a ‘world turned upside down’ but more like a move from chimp-like society to bonobo-like society. I’ve held this view for a long time but I’ve hardly dared express it. Luckily, so few people read my writing that I’m unlikely to experience much blowback, but in any case many would argue that it’s illegitimate to compare humans with other species. Not just because of the essentially religious idea of ‘human specialness’, but because ‘civilisation’ or ‘culture’ has so altered the human psyche that it’s essentially useless to compare us with species that either don’t have culture or have it in only the most rudimentary form.

I doubt if Darwin would agree, as much of his work focussed on the extraordinary complexity of non-human species, and the ‘instinctiveness’ of humans. In any case I’ll focus now on other primates, all of whom are socially organised in one way or another.

The lemurs of Madagascar are prosimians, species of primates that are considered less ‘evolved’ than simians. Outside of their current island home, lemurs were out-competed by the more adapted species they gave rise to. Fascinatingly, all lemur species are female-dominant, though not always through sexual dimorphism. Lemurs live in small groups, with a generally even male-female ratio. A key feature of lemur social life is the creation of coalitions, especially as regards sexual behaviour, and sexual behaviour, obviously, is key to any species’ survival and development. The lemurs are something of a mystery in regard to their female-dominant traits, which has even given rise to a slightly pejorative title for the mystery – the lemur syndrome. In any case, understanding their group dynamics, involving coalitions, competition and sex, inter alia, and linking this behaviour to genes, gene expression and neurological findings – which are being increasingly honed and targeted – is essential to solving the mystery.

The same goes, of course, for all prosimian and simian species. The vast majority of them are male-dominant, often, but not always reflected in a greater or lesser degree of sexual dimorphism. Size isn’t everything in species with complex and sometimes gender-based group dynamics. And so I come to that old favourite topic, chimps and bonobos, our equal-closest living relatives.

Chimps can be violent towards each other, often to a sickening degree – almost as sickening as humans – but, as with humans, this violence is clearly not ultimately self-destructive. For example, when a gang of chimps come across a stray member of a neighbouring group, it’s not uncommon for them to bite, kick and stomp the unfortunate to death. There have even been occasions when one group has slaughtered another wholesale, though one or two might survive by flight – and again, human comparisons spring to mind.

Chimps live in fission-fusion social groups, meaning that they form small, relatively unstable groups within a larger association which may amount to hundreds. Within these groups, large or small, there is a male linear dominance hierarchy, in which the group has one alpha male, who dominates all the others, followed by a beta male, who dominates everyone but the alpha, and so on down the line. Males remain in their birth communities, but females emigrate more or less at adolescence. This means that the young females entering a new group are of lower status and are viewed with suspicion (think of refugees at the US southern border). It also means that the females break kinship ties more than the males. Males also bond through co-operative hunting and boundary patrolling, and in attacking other groups. Again, think of human tribal behaviour. In some chimp communities kinship has been observed to be more important than other coalitions, in others not, but in either case male bonding adds to dominance over females. Co-operative hunting, it should be added, is having serious effects on the hunted, which is usually the red colobus monkey, which is in serious decline in multiple sites where chimps are thriving.

There is always one power that females have in these societies, the power to produce offspring – to maintain the species. Estrus in chimps is marked by visible swelling of the anogenital region, though the first of these swellings occurs before the young female is fertile, and may be a way of attracting males in her new community. Females are able to give birth (parturition) at 13-14 years, but if they aren’t accepted in the community, there’s a danger of infanticide by males, especially as females often use promiscuity to establish themselves. Infanticide tends to reduce the female’s interbirth interval, and favours the genetic line of the male doing the killing (one wonders if they have a way of ‘knowing’ that the murdered child isn’t theirs). Chimp sexual activity is generally promiscuous, though it most often occurs during estrus (maximal tumescence). The female, of course, has to strategise to find the best opportunity for producing healthy and communally favoured offspring – not an easy task, as it leads to secretiveness, suspicion, jealousy and so forth.

Of course, I’m writing this to draw comparisons between chimp societies and early human societies, out of which our modern civilisations developed. Human societies are more complex, naturally, reflecting individual, neurological complexity, and greater, more diverse cultural complexity, but the basis of our patriarchy can certainly be traced in our chimp relatives. Bonobos, however, are quite different, and remarkably so considering their relatively recent divergence from their chimp cousins. Humans have one great advantage over chimps and bonobos, I think. We can consciously teach ourselves to change, to be better adapted to a biosphere we have increasingly recognised is interdependent and precious in its astonishing diversity. And we can learn a lot about this from bonobos.


Margaret MacMillan, The uses and abuses of history, 2010.

Charles Darwin, On the origin of species by means of natural selection, 1859


Written by stewart henderson

January 25, 2021 at 8:50 pm

a bonobo world? 11

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another bitter-sweet reflection on capacities and failures

I was in a half-asleep state, and I don’t know how to describe it neurologically, but subjectively I was hearing or being subjected to a din in my head, a kind of babble, like in an echoing school canteen. Then I heard a knocking sound above the din, then in a transforming whoosh all the din stopped in my head, it became silent apart from the knocking, and then, as a kind of wakening crystallisation clarified things, another sound, of trickling water. I quickly realised this was the sound from the shower above me, and the knocking was of the pipes being affected by the rush of hot water. But what really interested me was what had just happened in my brain. The din, of thought, or inchoate thought, or of confusedly buzzing neural connections, was dampened down instantly when this new sound forced itself into my – consciousness? – at least into a place or a mini-network which commanded attention. It, the din, disappeared as if a door had been slammed on it. 

I can’t describe what happened in my brain better than this, though I’m sure that this concentration of focus, or activity, in one area of my brain, and the concomitant dropping of all other foci or activity, to facilitate that concentration, was something essential to human, and of course other animal, neurology. Something observed but not controlled by ‘me’. Something evolved. I like the way this is shared by mice and men, women and wombats. 

But of course there are big differences too. I’ve described the experience, whatever it is, in such a way that a neurologist, on reading or listening to me, would be able to explain my experience more fully, or, less likely, be inspired to examine it or experiment with its no-doubt miriad causal pathways. I suppose this experience, though more or less everyday and unthreatening, is associated with flight-or-fight. The oddity of the sound, its difference from the background din, or perhaps rather my awareness of its oddity, caused a kind of brain-flip, as all its forces, or most of them, became devoted to identifying it. Which caused me to awaken, to marshall a fuller consciousness. How essential this is, in a world of predators and home intruders, and how much fun it is, and how useful it is, to try for a fuller knowledge of what’s going on. And so we go, adding to our understanding, developing tools for further investigation, finding those tools might just have other uses in expanding other areas of our knowledge, and the world of our ape cousins is left further and further behind. For me, this is a matter of pride, and a worry. I’m torn. The fact that I think the way I do has to do with my reading and my reflections, the habits of a lifetime. Some have nerdiness, if that’s what it is, thrust upon them. I’m fascinated by the human adventure, in its beginnings and its future. Its beginnings are connected to other apes, to old world and new world monkeys, to tarsiers, to tree shrews and rodents and so on, all the way back to archaea and perhaps other forms yet to be discovered. We need to fully recognise this connectivity. Its future, what with our increasing dominance over other species and the earthly landscape, our obsession with growth, our throwaway mindset, but also our ingenious solutions, our capacity for compassion and for global cooperation, that future is and always will be a mystery, just outside of our manipulating grasp, with every new solution creating more problems requiring more solutions. 

A few hundred years ago, indeed right up to the so-called Great War of 1914, human warfare was a much-celebrated way of life. And we still suffer a kind of hero-worship of military adventurism, and tell lies about it. In the USA, many times over the most powerful military nation on earth, the media are always extolling the sacrifice of those who fought to ‘keep America safe’. This is a hackneyed platitude, considering that, notwithstanding the highly anomalous September 11 2001 attack, the country has never had to defend its borders in any war. Military casualties are almost certain to occur in a foreign country, where the USA is seeking to preserve or promote its own interest, generally against the interests of that country. In this respect, the USA, it should be said, is no better or worse than any other powerful country throughout history. The myth of military might entailing moral superiority, which began with the dawn of civilisations, dies hard, as ‘American exceptionalism’ shows. 

But globalism, international trade, travel, communication and co-operation, is making for a safer and less combative human society than ever before. So, as militarism as a way of life recedes, we need to focus on the problems of globalism and economic growth. As many have pointed out, the pursuit of growth and richesse is producing many victims, many ‘left-behind’. It’s dividing families and creating a culture of envy, resentment and often unmitigated hatred of the supposedly threatening ‘other’. The world of the bonobo – that tiny community of a few tens of thousands – tinier than any human nation – a gentle, fun-loving, struggling, sharing world – seems as distant to us as the world of the International Space Station, way out there. And yet…


Written by stewart henderson

November 16, 2020 at 12:10 pm

a bonobo world? 5

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Chapter 1 – Culture (continued)

It’s also worth noting that the damage done to the earlier inhabitants of Rapa Nui and Australia was more than merely inadvertent. Certainly very little was known about the epidemiology of smallpox at the time, but the lack of understanding of environmental conditions – largely due to bringing a European mindset to dealing with altogether different circumstances, was ruinous to the vegetation and wildlife of both the tiny Pacific island and the vast ‘Great Southern Land’. Mostly this involved deforestation for sheep and cattle grazing. In Rapa Nui also, an activity known as ‘blackbirding’, the kidnapping of Pacific island natives to work as slave labour in Peru and in Australia in the mid-nineteenth century, had a devastating effect, with about 1500 people being abducted (or killed), a sizeable proportion of the population, in only two years (1862-3). 

The purpose of detailing all this is to raise awareness of the complexity of culture, to guard against prejudging and dismissing cultures as inferior to our own, and to consider our own shortcomings as a culture. And this can extend to our relations with other species also, of course. Now consider the following quote:

“These frozen faces … mark a civilization which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge.” Bronowski said, “I am fond of these ancient, ancestral faces, but in the end, all of them are not worth one child’s dimpled face”, for one human child—any child—has the potential to achieve more than that entire civilization did. Yet “for most of history, civilizations have crudely ignored that enormous potential … children have been asked simply to conform to the image of the adult.” And thus ascent has been sabotaged or frozen.

It is taken from David Deutsch’s admiring essay on Jacob Bronowski and his series The ascent of man, and it refers to the statues found on Rapa Nui and to the culture that created them. Deutsch highlights the ‘ascent’ element of Bronowski’s series, and he elaborates further on this in his book The beginning of infinity, the central thesis of which – that humans are capable of more or less infinite development and improvement – I’m quite sympathetic to. However, in dismissing ‘the customary condescending doublethink towards primitive cultures’, of many anthropologists, and supporting Bronowski’s apparently wholesale contempt for the Rapa Nui statue builders, Deutsch makes a fatal error, the same type of error, in fact that Robert O’Hara Burke made in rejecting the advice and help of ‘mere savages’ who had learned, no doubt by painful trial and error, to survive more or less comfortably for millennia on the meagre resources of the desert environment of Central Australia. This example of cultural arrogance led directly to Burke’s death.

Now, to be fair to Deutsch, he fully recognises that he himself wouldn’t survive for long in central Australia’s hostile environment, or that of Saharan Africa, Mongolia, Antarctica or any other forbidding place. But I think he fails to sufficiently recognise that particular cultures, like species, adapt to particular environments, some of which are more static than others – but none of which are entirely static. That’s why I think Bronowski’s statement, that Rapa Nui’s statues and the massive platforms created for them, ‘mark a civilisation which failed to take the first step on the ascent of rational knowledge’ is both dangerously arrogant and false.

In trying to show why this is so, I won’t be indulging in any romanticised view of indigenous cultures. I come from a diverse and dominating culture that has discovered only recently, thousands of exoplanets, gravitational waves that Einstein postulated but never thought could be discovered, and the Higgs boson, a particle that I’m excited by even without having much idea of its nature or vital role in the cosmic structure. I should also mention our ability to create entire human beings from a single somatic cell, through induced pluripotency – and it may be that these astonishing achievements may be overtaken by others more astonishing still, by the time I’ve finished writing this work. But of course when I say ‘our’ achievements, I’m well aware of my non-role in all this. I’m, in a sense, a mere particle caught up and swept along in the tide of momentous events. I had no choice in being a Europeanised human male. I could’ve been born as an Easter Islander, or an Aboriginal Australian. Or indeed, as a bonobo. My inheritance, and my place in the culture or species I belong to, is not a matter of free will. And being born in a different culture would make me think very differently, but no more or less ‘rationally’. 

As mentioned, there has been some important research on the experience of the early human inhabitants of Rapa Nui lately. Of course it’s difficult to get clear data on Rapa Nui culture, clouded as it is by the ideologies of different researchers, by the myths and legends of the islanders themselves, by the lack of written records and the difficulties of interpreting and dating remains, tools, ash-heaps and other artifacts, but it’s frankly hard to believe that these islanders, so attuned to their environment, would have engaged in the thoughtless or ‘irrational’ destruction of it that Bronowski et al accuse them of. The most recent analysis, published only a few months ago, paints a different picture:

During the last decade, several continuous (gap‐free) and chronologically coherent sediment cores encompassing the last millennia have been retrieved and analysed, providing a new picture of forest removal on Easter Island. According to these analyses, deforestation was not abrupt but gradual and occurred at different times and rates, depending on the site. Regarding the causes, humans were not the only factors responsible for forest clearing, as climatic droughts as well as climate–human–landscape feedbacks and synergies also played a role. In summary, the deforestation of Easter Island was a complex process that was spatially and temporally heterogeneous and took place under the actions and interactions of both natural and anthropogenic drivers. In addition, archaeological evidence shows that the Rapanui civilization was resilient to deforestation and remained healthy until European contact, which contradicts the occurrence of a cultural collapse. 

What is certain, as Diamond’s analysis has shown, is that the island was less hospitable than most for sustaining human life, and yet the Rapa Nui people endured, and, as the account left by Roggeveen and his men shows, they were hardly a starving, desperate remnant in 1722.


Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu

David Deutsch, The beginning of infinity

Jared Diamond, Collapse,precipitated%20its%20own%20cultural%20collapse.&text=According%20to%20these%20analyses%2C%20deforestation,rates%2C%20depending%20on%20the%20site.

reading matters 13: the glass universe

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Canto: So The glass universe, published in 2016, has a cute title, referring as it does to the ‘glass ceiling’, another clever term for that invisible barrier up there that appears to prevent women from rising in politics, business and science, but also to the glass photographic plates upon which were recorded the spectrographic signatures of a vast arrays of stars, clusters and the like, in the decades of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, by a somewhat less vast array of human computers – the name given to the largely underpaid female stargazers and recorders of Harvard College observatory and elsewhere.

Jacinta: Yes, Dava Sobel, author of the fascinating little book Longitude, as well as Galileo’s Daughter, which is in a stack of books here waiting to be read, has brought to life a group of dedicated women and their male supporters over a period when the higher education of women was just starting to be addressed. 

Canto: Yes, it all started with the Drapers, a wealthy and well-connected couple in the 1870s. Henry was a leading astronomer of the day, and ‘Mrs Henry’, aka Anna, a socialite and heiress. Their social evenings were mostly science-focused, with guests including the inventor Thomas Edison, the zoologist Alexander Agassiz, and Prof. Edward Pickering, of Harvard. Henry Draper was working on the chemical make-up of stars, using ‘a prism that split starlight into its spectrum of component colours’, for which he’d won great acclaim, when he died suddenly of a flu-like illness in his mid-forties. His devoted and rich widow, keen to continue his legacy, helped finance, along with Pickering, a continuation of his ground-breaking research.  

Jacinta: And so the computers of Harvard College Observatory were born. We need to explain – or try to – the science of spectrographic analysis, but I’d like to first briefly describe some of the women who did this work. They include Williamina (Mina) Fleming, a canny Scotswoman frae Dundee (our birthplace), whose first American job was as the Pickering’s maid but who soon proved her worth as a star spotter and tracker, classifier, and organiser, leading the team of computers in the early decades. In 1899 she was given the title of ‘curator of astronomical photographs’, becoming the first titled female in the university’s history. As such she presided over 12 women ‘engaged in the care of the photographs; identification, examination and measurement of them; reduction of these measurements, and preparation of results for the printer’. 

Canto: Far from just bureaucratic work – this would’ve involved a lot of learning and conjecture, noting patterns and anomalies and trying to account for them.

Jacinta: Absolutely. Antonia Maury, Annie Jump Cannon, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, Henrietta Leavitt and the tragically short-lived Adelaide Ames were among the most noteworthy of these computers, and I should stop using the term, because they weren’t machines and they all made lasting contributions to the field…

Canto: And they all have their own Wikipedia pages. What more evidence do we need?

Jacinta: They contributed to academic papers, often without attribution, especially in the early years, and had their findings read out in academic institutions to which they were barred. Over time they became established teachers and lecturers, in the women’s colleges which started to become a thing in the twenties. But let’s get onto the daunting stuff of science. How were these glass plates created and what did they reveal?

Canto: So spectroscopy became a thing in the 1860s. Spectroscopes were attached to telescopes, and they separated starlight into ‘a pale strip of coloured light ranging from reddish at one end through orange, yellow, green, and blue to violet at the other’. I quote from the book. But what these changing colours meant exactly, as well as the ‘many black vertical lines interspersed at intervals along the coloured strip’, this was all something of a mystery, a code that needed to be cracked. Henry Draper had captured these spectral lines and intervals on photographic plates, which were bequeathed to Harvard by his widow. They formed the beginning of the collection. 

Jacinta: The term spectrum was first used by Isaac Newton two centuries earlier, and he correctly claimed that this coloration wasn’t due to flaws in glass and crystals but was a property of light itself. The dark lines within the stellar spectra on Draper’s plates are called Fraunhofer lines, after a Bavarian lens-maker, Joseph von Fraunhofer, who built the first spectroscope. He at first thought the dark lines between the rainbow of colours his instrument produced were somehow artificial, but continued work convinced him that they were a natural effect. He gave them alphabetical labels according to their thickness, including the letter D for a double line in the pale orange region. He mapped hundreds of them, though today we’ve detected many thousands of them in sunlight. He didn’t understand what they were, though he realised they were something significant. Later in the 19th century Robert Bunsen and Gustav Kirchov conducted experiments with various chemical elements and found that they burned in colours around those black lines, which we now know as absorption lines. 

Canto: Yes, it was Kirchov who connected the colours created by burning elements to the spectral lines that the sun’s light could be separated into, concluding that this great fireball of gases producing white light in the sky was actually a mixture of burning elements, or elements being transformed into other elements. As to the absorption lines, Sobel puts it this way:

As light radiated through the sun’s outer layers, the bright emission lines from the solar conflagration were absorbed in the cooler surrounding atmosphere, leaving dark telltale gaps in the solar spectrum.

These absorption lines, which together with emission lines, are spectral lines in the visible spectrum which ‘can be used to identify the atoms, elements or molecules present in a star, galaxy or cloud of interstellar gas’, to quote from this Swinburne University site

Jacinta: So we’ll try to keep within the confines of the book, and the scientific developments of the period which these women, in particular, contributed to. So, rather, surprisingly to us modern wiseacres, these revelations about the sun as a super-hot fireball and a producer of elements was a bit hard for 19th century folk to take in, but scientists were excited. Henry Draper described spectral analysis as having ‘made the chemist’s arms millions of miles long’, and in 1872 he began photographing the spectra of other stars. It was long known that they had different colours and brightnesses – called ‘apparent luminosities’ – but spectral analysis provided more detailed data for categorisation, and sets of photographs revealed changes in luminosity and colour over time. Williamina Fleming, Harvard’s principal computer, took charge of Draper’s thousands of plates, which provided the most detailed spectral data of stars up to that time, and was able to analyse them into classes, via their absorption lines, in new and complex ways. It was cutting edge science.

Canto: There was also an interest in throwing more light, so to speak, on variable stars. They were so numerous and complex in their variability that Pickering needed more computers to track them. Lacking funds, he advertised for volunteers, emphasising the role of women in particular, whose effectiveness he’d seen plenty of evidence for. 

Jacinta: Not to mention their willingness to work for less, or effectively nothing. These were often siblings or partners of astronomers or other scientists, with unfulfilled scientific ambitions. Later, though, came from the newly created ‘Ladies’ Colleges, such as Radcliffe and Wellesley.

Canto: The Orion Nebula was a particularly rich source of these variable stars, and Pickering found an ideal computer, Henrietta Leavitt, a Radcliffe graduate, to explore them. Within six months, she’d confirmed previous identifications of variables in the nebula and added more than 50 others, afterwards confirmed by Fleming. Then, using a combination of negative and positive glass plates, she found hundreds more, in the Orion Nebula and the Small Magellanic Cloud. As Pickering pointed out, due to the lack of resolution in the plates, this number was likely the tip of the iceberg. In writing up a report of her findings, Leavitt described a pattern she’d found: ‘It is worthy of notice… that the brighter variables [aka cepheid variables] have the longer periods’. This brightness (or luminosity) and its relationship to periodicity (the time taken to go through a full cycle of change) is now known as the Leavitt Law, though of course it took decades for Henrietta Leavitt to receive full recognition for discovering it. 

Jacinta: Yes, it’s worth noting that these women worked painstakingly on data analysis, developing new and more rigorous classification systems, studying and theorising about anomalies, and communicating their findings to leading astronomers and researchers around the world. And it’s also worth noting that they were supported and highly appreciated at Harvard by Edward Pickering and his successor as Director of the Harvard College Observatory, Harlow Shapley – though of course there were plenty of naysayers. 

Canto: Okay so we’ve spoken of two or three of the computer stars’, and there were many more, but let’s finish with the work of Antonia Maury. 

Jacinta: Well we must also mention Annie Jump Cannon (great name), star classifier and photographer extraordinaire, suffragist and generally formidable persona, in spite of being almost completely deaf. She classified around 350,000 stars and contributed greatly to the Harvard Classification Scheme, the first international star classification system. Antonia Coetana de Paiva Pereira Maury (I’m not kidding), a graduate of Vassar College, was a niece of Henry Draper. 

Canto: Not what you know but who you know? 

Jacinta: It is partly that – and that cliché is worth a whole book to itself – but Maury was no slouch, she was a keen and observant star observer and systemiser. One important discovery she shared with Pickering was one of the first known binary star systems, in the handle of the Big Dipper. This required months of careful observation from 1887 through 1889, as they noted one spectral line separating into two then the lines merging again, then separating, with one line shifting slightly to the red end of the spectrum and the other to the blue. Once they recognised that they were dealing with binary star systems, others were soon found. And once these systems were confirmed, Maury carefully calculated their orbital periods and speeds.

Canto: There were many other important breakthroughs. Spectral colours, as we’ve pointed out, were connected to particular chemical elements, and Cecilia Payne, whose major focus was the measurement of stellar temperatures, found a superabundance in the elements hydrogen and helium, which confounded other experts and soon made her doubt her own calculations. Payne wrote up her findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 1925, ‘admitting’ that the percentages of hydrogen and helium were ‘improbably high’ and ‘almost certainly not real’. 

Jacinta: Yes, it’s well worth noting that the knowledge we have of stars today, which seems almost eternal to us, is in fact very recent. The book also covers the dispute between Harlow Shapley and Edwin Hubble – with many on either side of course – as to whether other galaxies existed. That dispute was only resolved in the thirties, and now we count other galaxies in the trillions. So the period covered in Sobel’s book was a truly transformative period in our understanding of the universe, as well as transformative in terms of women’s education and women’s participation in the most heavenly of all the sciences. 

Canto: Whateva.


The glass universe, by Dava Sobel, 2016

Written by stewart henderson

October 22, 2020 at 1:22 pm

the bonobo world 3: other cultures – Rapa Nui

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Writing about bonobo society and what we can learn from it, I’m very aware of, and anticipating, negative responses, much of them, in my view, based on the argument that ‘they’re nothing like us’ which I always find as code for, ‘we’re far more than them…’ – more diverse, more sophisticated, more advanced, more intelligent, more just about everything. So we have nothing to learn from them. ‘Them’, here, I feel, doesn’t just refer to bonobos, but to any species or culture that we’ve decided is less ‘advanced’ than ourselves. It’s worth noting though, that species, or cultures, or even life-forms, don’t ‘advance’, or change, unless they need to. That necessity might involve a changing climate, or threats from other species or cultures. Human life in Europe has undergone massive change over the past ten thousand years, much of it due to rising populations of diverse cultures clashing and competing with each other as well as engaging in cultural intermingling and exchange. In Australia, over many thousands of years before Europeans established a colony here, the population was sparse and much more stable, cultural differences were likely far less radical and cultural interaction much rarer – no horses to ride much less wagons and chariots to allow large scale mobility. As modern ‘Europeans’ transplanted to what we like to call the ‘New World’ we often treat other cultures, even unconsciously, as inferior, as if we personally are the creators of our technologically and politically complex world rather than the recipients.

So I want to look at a topic I’ve stumbled upon often in recent times to see what I, if no-one else, can learn from it. It concerns the success or failure of a culture.

Like many of us, I first heard about Easter Island when watching something documentary on television. Apparently a more or less disappeared culture had created, then abandoned, monumental sculptures on this remote island, presumably for religious purposes, and then they either died out, or abandoned the island, sailing off into the sunset. Or something like that. Again, like many, my attention was aroused for a few instants before the rest of life took over, or until the odd details of these monuments and the people who created them were mentioned again in another documentary or article. In more recent years, I’ve read Jared Diamond’s chapter, ‘Twilight at Easter’, in his book Collapse, published in 2006, and David Deutsch’s very different treatment, apparently channeling Jacob Bronowski, in ‘Unsustainable’, a chapter of his 2011 book The beginning of infinity. I’ve also watched a couple of long-form documentaries, one from WBC TV, the other from a series called ‘Fall of Civilizations’, which have advanced my armchair expertise in various ways.

Easter Island (aka Rapa Nui) was so named by a Dutch explorer, Jacob Roggeveen, who sighted it on Easter Day 1722. It is famously remote, some 3,500 kilometres off the coast of Chile, to which it now belongs, and over 2000 kilometres from Pitcairn Island and Mangareva in the eastern Pacific. What Roggeveen and his men encountered on the island was a mystery that has exercised many investigators since. The mystery, however, also created a myth, or a number of myths, about the original human inhabitants.

The Dutch were astonished at the large statues, known as moai, that these inhabitants had created, many of them mounted on massive platforms with their backs to the sea. They expressed an inevitable puzzlement about ‘savages’ being capable of such monumental and elaborate constructions. And so, over the next two centuries, various ‘theories’ were posited to explain away these moai, including aliens dropping in from a place called ‘space’. In the mid-twentieth century, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl promoted the idea that the Polynesian region was explored and settled from South America by a ‘white-skinned race’, and that Hotu Matua, who the Rapa Nui people see as their god-like progenitor, was of this race. Heyardahl was presumably linking Polynesian statuary to the Chachapoya culture of Peru, with their large anthropomorphous sarcophagi, though the differences of design and purpose are immediately apparent. In any case, it has been well-established in recent years that Rapa Nui, the most westerly Polynesian island, was the last island to be colonised in the out-of-Africa wave that began some 60,000 years ago.

The Polynesians, ‘the Vikings of the Pacific’, were ingenious and sophisticated mariners, who built large, highly efficient two-hulled canoes, thus creating the first catamaran design. Their vessels were very stable and speedy, and they used sails to tack against the prevailing winds. They navigated by the stars about which they developed a precise, unwritten knowledge. Though Rapa Nui is only a tiny island in the vast eastern Pacific, the Polynesians’ knowledge of seabirds’ habits and flight paths helped them to zero in on land masses that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s worth noting that later navigators such as Roggeveen and James Cook had no knowledge or inkling of the Polynesians’ skills and assumed that the more far-flung islands must have been found by accident, by castaways or ‘drifters’ – another example of the narrow-minded sense of superiority of ‘advanced’ cultures, which, to be fair, we’re beginning to correct.

It isn’t known precisely when the Polynesians first settled on Rapa Nui, but there appears to have been regular habitation there from about 800 years ago. It’s clear from the numerous moai – we know of at least 900 – carved by the Rapa Nui people, and the great platforms, or ahu, upon which they were displayed, that they had developed a sophisticated, creative culture during the first few centuries after their arrival (building upon eastern Polynesian traditions found on other islands), but it seems this was very much in decline by the time of Roggeveen’s 1722 visit. It’s the causes of this decline that are very much the subject of modern debate.

Rapa Nui is a volcanic island, triangular in shape, and thickly forested in earlier times, as researchers have found through . However, by the early eighteenth century, almost all of the trees were gone. The controversy revolves around whether and how much the Rapa Nui people engaged in self-destructive behaviour, in relation to their natural resources, resulting in population collapse.

Jared Diamond, with the help of scientific associates, examined a number of variables affecting deforestation on Pacific islands. They found that:

Deforestation is more severe on:

1) dry islands than wet islands. 2) cold high-latitude islands than warm equatorial islands. 3) old volcanic islands than young volcanic islands 4) islands without aerial ash fallout than islands with it 5) islands further from Central Asia’s dust plume 6) islands without makatea (coral reef rock) than islands with it 7) low islands than high islands 8) remote islands than islands with near neighbours, and 9) small islands than big islands

Collapse, Jared Diamond, p116

Based on these criteria, and his finding that Rapa Nui ticked 8 out of 9 of the above boxes, Diamond came to this judgment:

In short, the reason for Easter’s unusually severe degree of deforestation isn’t that those seemingly nice people really were unusually bad or improvident. Instead, they had the misfortune to be living in one of the most fragile environments, at the highest risk for deforestation, of any Pacific people. For Easter Island, more than for or any other society discussed in this book, we can specify in detail the factors underlying environmental fragility.

Of course, questions remain, Such as: Why would a culture destroy a resource (its trees) when it relied on that resource so heavily? How, exactly, was that resource destroyed? Was it actually the result of human activity, and if so, what kind of activity? And there are other questions about the Rapa Nui population itself. It seems to have imploded in the period between the building of ahu and moai, and the incursions of Europeans in the eighteenth century. There’s much disagreement about the population of Rapa Nui at its height, though it may have been as much as 15,000. It was reduced to approximately 3000 by 1722, or so the story goes – unfortunately everything about this island’s pre-European history is subject to ongoing debate.

Evidence clearly shows that some 21 species of trees and the island’s land birds had disappeared by the time of Roggeveen’s visit. The rats brought to the island may have been the cause of much of the plant devastation, and the loss of many of the biggest trees may have affected the inhabitants’ ability to build canoes for fishing expeditions. Research has shown that the Rapa Nui people’s diet contained far less fish and seafood than that of other Polynesian Islanders. However, claims by Diamond and others, of a breakdown within the culture leading to internecine warfare and even cannibalism, have been controversial. The obsidian blades found on the island may have been fashioned for farming rather than fighting. More importantly, for my own thesis of the superiority of co-operative societies, (bonobos as opposed to chimps), recent research seems to be converging on a view that contradicts Diamond’s story of increasing competition in the form of ever more monumental statue building in a heavily hierarchical society. We may never know for sure, but anthropologist Carl Lipo had this to say on the research in 2018:

Lipo explained that there is no archaeological evidence for the control of resources or any hierarchical distribution of resources, which is leading to a new narrative about the pre-contact Rapa Nui society: that the island was not dominated by massive chiefdoms, and rather, communities shared resources without any prehistoric warfare.

I’ll have more to say on this topic, and the fate of the Rapa Nui people, in my next post.


Collapse, Jared Diamond 2005

The beginning of infinity, by David Deutsch, 2011

Easter Island Mysteries of a Lost World I WBC TV, documentary video written and presented by Dr Jago Cooper

 Easter Island – Where Giants Walked: Fall of Civilisations, documentary video presented (and written?) by Paul Cooper

Written by stewart henderson

July 27, 2020 at 8:27 pm

Empress Dowager Cixi: tradition and reform

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Canto: So we’ve written a piece on Cixi (to save time I won’t keep referring to her by full title), touting her as a reformer, within strict limits, but without actually mentioning and discussing any of her reforms.

Jacinta: Yes, there’s so much to write, to put her in context, that a few blog posts wouldn’t be enough. But before we begin I want to express my annoyance at the Wikipedia article on Cixi. It ends with this on Jung Chang’s book:

In 2013, Jung Chang’s biography, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China, portrays Cixi as the most capable ruler and administrator that China could have had at the time. Pamela Kyle Crossley said in the London Review of Books that Chang’s claims “seem to be minted from her own musings, and have little to do with what we know was actually going in China”. Although Crossley was sympathetic to restoring women’s place in Chinese history, she found “rewriting Cixi as Catherine the Great or Margaret Thatcher is a poor bargain: the gain of an illusory icon at the expense of historical sense”.

Canto: Yes, this is a travesty of the book, which at no point makes comparisons with the other leaders mentioned, or ever hints at such comparisons. Having said that, Chang’s book was a biography, not a history of China during this period, which of course would’ve been a far more monumental task. The book focuses particularly on the court and the Forbidden City, and the struggles and machinations there, and only occasionally, but effectively, expands outward to the nationwide repercussions. As to being ‘minted from her own musings’, the book is clearly massively researched, with primary sources linked to almost every page of the book. Of course some decisions and actions require speculation, all of which, it seems to me, fits with a coherent description of Cixi’s character – that of a proud and often ruthless, baggage-laden Manchu aristocrat with progressive tendencies in keeping with her love of knowledge and innovation, struggling to make sense of and keep abreast of a wave of progress, internationalism and foreign encroachment without precedent in Chinese history. And also of course that of a powerful 19th century woman in a part of the world even more repressive of powerful women than that of ‘the west’.

Jacinta: Yes, it’s particularly disappointing that Wikipedia ends with this hatchet-job, leaving the unwary reader with a very wrong impression of the book, IMHO. Anyway, to the reforms. Chang highlights most of them in the epilogue to her book, and the list is well worth presenting here:

Under her leadership the country began to acquire virtually all the attributes of a modern state: railways, electricity, telegraph, telephones, western medicine, a modern-style army and navy, and modern ways of conducting foreign trade and diplomacy. The restrictive millennium-old educational system was discarded and replaced by western-style schools and universities. The press blossomed, enjoying a freedom that was unprecedented and arguably unsurpassed since. She unlocked the door to political participation: for the first time in China’s long history, people were to become ‘citizens’. It was Cixi who championed women’s liberation in a culture that had for centuries imposed foot-binding on the female population – a practice to which she put an end. The fact that her last enterprise before her untimely death was to introduce the vote testifies to her courage and vision Above all, her transformation of China was carried out without her engaging in violence and with relatively little upheaval.

Canto: Yes, all this is true, and it largely came from her, or more accurately from her complex response to the massive changes going on in the outer world, and that world’s growing impact on China. I’m sure Chang wrote this partly as a corrective to the propaganda surrounding Cixi, that she was an obstacle to progress and, in contradiction, a figurehead manipulated by powerful aristocrats and factions.

Jacinta: And also a cruel and lascivious harridan. And I must say, in response to Crossley’s review, she does bear comparison to other major female power-wielders. To Thatcher perhaps, if only for her formidable ‘she who must be obeyed’ presence, to which many eye-witnesses throughout the book testify, and also perhaps to Elizabeth I (I don’t know enough about Catherine the Great), for her concern for stability and moderation, and for the Chinese people.

Canto: And yet she could be ruthless and cruel, though I put this partly down to the absolute power wielded by the throne, and the history of imperial and aristocratic cruelty she was born into – the eunuch system, lingchi (death by a thousand cuts), the bastinado and so forth. Reforms to the Qing Legal Code, late in Cixi’s lifetime, banned many of these cruelties, though certainly this was under pressure from other nations.

Jacinta: Yes, she has to be seen in the context of China’s long isolation from the ‘enlightenment’ ideas of the west, which was coming to an end just as she gained total power. And her experience, for example, of the wanton destruction of the Old Summer Palace – regarded as ‘the garden of gardens’, an apparently wondrous complex of outstanding architecture, floral designs and historical treasures – by the British in the 1860s would hardly have warmed her to any ideas of western superiority. In fact I think her early sympathy for the Boxer Rebellion well captures her sympathy for so many of the ordinary people who felt threatened by the many changes wrought by foreigners and the arrogance with which some of those went about their ‘mission’. And I’m thinking about Christians in particular.

Canto: The cruelties and the despotism of mid-nineteenth century China bear comparison to the different cruelties of pre-enlightenment Europe, with its burnings by fire, its trials by ordeal, its divine rights and so forth. Reforms came to China almost too quickly, and the path from that nineteenth-century ‘opening up’ to the extremely repressive and unrepresentative government of modern China is no doubt as complex as it is depressing. Cixi was bowing to the inevitable towards the end of her life, it seems, acknowledging, or hoping, that a constitutional monarchy, with popular representation in some kind of parliament, would be the eventual result of all the pressures being brought to bear on the system she’d been accustomed to manipulating. Certainly she was a traditionalist in many ways, full of superstitions that seem bizarre to us, overly loyal to her heritage, the Manchu minority (though she appointed more Han people to positions of authority and power than any previous Qing ruler), and keen to uphold court ceremonial (though flexible when it suited her). It seems to me that if she was twenty or thirty years younger at the turn of the century, with the same hold on power, she would’ve had a better chance than anyone else of effecting a peaceful transition in China, from an absolute monarchy – one of the last – to some kind of more democratic system. But that wasn’t to be, and the rest, sadly, is history.


Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched Modern China, 2013

Written by stewart henderson

May 19, 2020 at 12:11 pm

The empress dowager Cixi – China’s greatest modern politician?

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I’m currently reading Jung Chang’s stunning biography of Cixi, the extraordinary woman who both upheld and manipulated centuries of tradition to become the most powerful political figure in China for over forty years, from the 1860s to her death early in the 20th century. I find Cixi’s character, intelligence and energy so compelling that I can’t wait to finish the book (even though it’s a page turner) to extol her virtues, to defend her supposed failings and to express my dismay that she isn’t as widely recognised and admired as she should be. I presume the Chinese are still taught that Mao was the bee’s knees (strange expression), and I wonder if they know anything much about Cixi, or anything accurate.
Having said that, my natural skepticism makes me wonder if Jung Chang’s bio is overly one-sided. Yet it’s certainly compelling, and convincing, and coherent in terms of her character – and well-documented. Cixi was both a traditionalist and a reformer, who got where she was as a result of tradition, in a country where obsession with ceremony, rank and custom were taken to a level hardly seen anywhere else. The idea that she could have turned her country into a democracy is quite preposterous. However, had she been given more power she would certainly have transformed the country far more than she was able to, and most definitely for the better. And there is no doubt that she had to negotiate a nest of vipers for much of her career, and she mostly handled it all with great aplomb.

The late nineteenth century (not to mention every century before that) was generally a hard time anywhere for smart, politically savvy women to express themselves in public forums, never mind to actually wield power. Cixi’s journey to the top of China’s bizarre hierarchy was a mixture of good fortune and the forcefulness of her personality. As a teenager from an illustrious Manchu family she was entered into one of the regular competitions to become one of the Xianfeng Emperor’s consorts or concubines (the emperor, always male, could choose as many concubines as he liked). Within ten years of her being selected, Xianfeng was dead and Cixi, still in her mid-twenties, had become the most powerful figure on the Chinese political scene.

We don’t know her real name, since women were too unimportant to have them memorialised – Cixi, meaning ‘kindly and joyous’ was the name given as an honorific when she became a part of the emperor’s retinue. What we know of these early years is that she lacked formal education but was bright, energetic and skilful in the arts esteemed in the women of the Forbidden City (later she was responsible for transforming the local operas into a major art form). She also happened to be the only one of the emperor’s women to bear him a healthy male child. This proved to be her entrée to real political power.

I’ll try not to go into too much detail here, though I’d love to. Read Jung Chang’s book. In brief, the Xianfeng emperor died quite young, and Cixi, along with Xianfeng’s young widow, with whom she was on friendly terms, organised a coup of sorts against the ultra-conservative faction who were about to gain control of the government as a protectorate while the new emperor (Cixi’s son) was still a minor. The two women, with Cixi very much the senior partner, were able, rather astonishingly, to rule the nation literally from behind the throne. As women they weren’t allowed to be seen wielding power and making decisions, so they took up a space behind a screen, in front of which sat the child-emperor, and listened to submissions and reports from throughout the empire. Foreign visitors were impressed and many considered Cixi the saviour of the Chinese nation – it’s likely they knew more about what was going on than most of the Chinese people, for the fact is that the Forbidden City lived up to its name and hardly anyone had access to government or knew anything of its leadership.

Of course it wasn’t all plain sailing. Cixi clearly had excellent diplomatic skills in dealing with court councillors and the aristocrats that couldn’t be discounted due to their status. Many of them were extreme traditionalists, though she had her favourite reform-minded princes. She also made tragic ‘mistakes’ including falling in love with a young eunuch to whom she granted ‘forbidden’ favours. The situation of court eunuchs, and eunuchs in general, was truly appalling. They were usually from impoverished backgrounds, their parents giving them up to an agonising operation without anaesthetic, and often fatal, in the hope of allowing them a better life in servitude to the upper classes. Those who survived were more often than not treated as less than human by their masters, the class who came to depend on them, in much the same way as the ancient Greeks and Romans depended on their slaves. Cixi’s mistake was to treat this particular eunuch, known as Little An, recognised for his intelligence and sensitivity, with affection and care and to assign him duties ‘above his station’. This scandalised the conservatives, who managed to have him beheaded for his ‘audacity’. The practice of killing eunuchs for the alleged crimes of their masters, was of course commonplace. Cixi suffered a near-fatal depression at this outcome, for which she understandably blamed herself.

Nevertheless she recovered, and the nation thrived under the first period of her rule, essentially from 1861 to the early 1870s, when her son, the Tongzhi Emperor, reached his mid-teens and it was expected that he would take over. However, he never really did. Tongzhi proved an indolent student who showed very little interest in affairs of state. As his teenage years advanced he spent more time engaging in night-time adventures with his friends outside the walls of the Forbidden City. He was struck down by disease, probably syphilis, and died just short of his eighteenth birthday.

Tongzhi’s unexpected early demise threatened another emergency, as there was no obvious emperor-candidate in the wings. Here again Cixi’s diplomatic skills were fully displayed. Having impressed the inner court with her proven leadership, she convened a meeting in which she suggested that the two women continue to run the country from behind their screen, and behind a new child-emperor, chosen by Cixi herself, her 3-year-old nephew Zaitian, thenceforth known as the Guangxu emperor. The most powerful counsellors, especially the reformers, were happy to comply with the plan, notwithstanding its unconventionality. The plan also effectively sidelined Prince Chun, Zaitian’s father, and one of Cixi’s foremost critics amongst the elite. As father of the emperor he was forced to resign his posts so as not to be seen to be using his influence over his son. Interestingly, Cixi remained solicitous for Prince Chun’s welfare, and eventually he became one of her most ardent supporters.

And so, over the next period, from the mid 1870s to the late 1880s, the period of Guangxu’s minority, reform proceeded apace. Of course there were many tensions and difficulties, especially with regard to foreign relations and the increasing presence of Christian missionaries in the country, tensions and antagonisms that eventually led to the so-called ‘boxer’ uprisings at the turn of the century. I may deal with all that in another post, as I haven’t finished reading that part of Chang’s book.

I’ll end this post, though, by trying to make sense of my amazement and fascination with Cixi’s character. First, I’d never heard of the woman before seeing this book amongst my partner Sarah’s collection a couple of years ago, and I’d fairly describe myself as having an above-average interest and knowledge of history in general. I also note that the general treatment of Cixi in potted ‘youtube’ histories and dramas is condescending if not hostile. The ‘anti-Cixi’ propaganda, which was active in her own lifetime, still shapes much of the world’s view of her today, it seems.

Second, I want to commend Chang’s treatment of Cixi’s life. One of my favourite chapters is titled ‘In retirement and in leisure (1889-94)’, which relates the period after Emperor Guangxu’s coming-of-age, when Cixi was forced, albeit temporarily, to retire, first to the Sea Palace, then to the Summer Palace, a site which she and many other Chinese associated with the destruction of the much-celebrated Old Summer Palace, ‘the Garden of Gardens’, by the British in 1860, an act of wanton vandalism which enraged the Chinese court and public alike, with Cixi being particularly affected. This chapter fascinated me not only for the insight into Cixi’s multifarious interests and her indefatigable energy, but for Chang’s own interest in researching it. This isn’t to say that a male historian would never be interested in these ‘domestic’ details, but it would be a rare male historian that would bring so much attention to it, and bring it so vibrantly to life.

The Summer Palace was redeveloped under Cixi’s guidance during this period of ‘retirement’ (she still had to confirm senior government appointments, and for a time still tried to involve herself in state affairs). In spite of being confined for much of her life to the Forbidden City, she loved the outdoors and developed a great knowledge of plants, flowers, animals and birds. The Summer Palace is a great outdoor area, mostly covered with water, and Cixi loved going on boating trips accompanied by musicians, and singing along with the tunes. Her love of opera and drama helped create a national interest and pride in these art forms. She also loved walking out in the rain, much to the distress of her eunuchs. During the propagation season she would lead the court ladies on expeditions for cuttings, and join them in potting and watering them regularly. Potted plants and flowers were kept everywhere, especially chrysanthemums, and her hair was regularly adorned with blooms. Cixi particularly loved dressing up, and was always immaculately coiffed and ‘done up’, as we can see from the all-too-few photos of her that we have – all, of course, from the last few years of her life.

The gardens provided fruits and vegetables for her retinue as well as the surrounding neighbourhood, and she often tended and gathered from them herself, even cooking herself on occasion. She reared many species of birds and animals and employed an expert to teach her the art of breeding. She learned how to imitate bird-calls so well that birds would land on her outstretched arm and eat from her hand…

There’s much more to relate, but this, I think, gives enough of a glimpse of a full and fascinated life. There was a dark side too, though, and some shocking moments of cruelty, but when we compare her life, and her accomplishments while in power, to that of China’s most famous politician outside of China, Mao Tse Tung, she shines very brightly indeed.

Speaking of Mao, Jung Chang has also written his biography, which I’m sure will be just as interesting, though not in such an uplifting way. I intend to read it. But before that I’ll hopefully write another post on Cixi (so much to write about!), a woman created by her time, but with the strength to change it.

The Summer Palace, Beijing, much restored under the guidance of Cixi


Empress Dowager Cixi: the concubine who launched modern China, by Jung Chang, 2013

Written by stewart henderson

May 14, 2020 at 5:57 pm

How did we get language?

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a most persuasive hypothesis

                                          a most persuasive hypothesis

According to National Geographic there are, or were, at least 7000 languages globally. That was a few years ago and they say the numbers are dwindling, so who knows. There may also be a lumpers v splitters issue here – are they all unique languages or are some just variants of the same language?
There are organisations out there dedicated to preserving rare and endangered languages via recordings and analyses, but is this such a vital project? After all, when a language dies out it’s not because their speakers have gone dumb, it’s because they’ve died and their offspring are speaking one of the more common, viable languages of their region. And this of course raises the question of whether language diversity is a good in itself, in the way that species diversity is seen to be, or whether we’d be better off speaking fewer languages globally. It’s actually quite a dangerous topic, since language is very much a cultural artefact, and cultural suppression, often of the most brutal kind, is currently going on in various benighted parts of the world.

The diversity of language also raises another fascinating question – did it evolve once or many times? Was there an ‘ur-language’ or proto-language from which all these diverse languages sprung? Take for example, the Australian Aboriginal languages. Anthropologists claim that there were some 250 of them around when Europeans arrived with their much smaller number of languages. And Aborigines arrived here about 50,000 years ago. But how many, and with how many different languages? These are perhaps the unanswerable questions that Milan Kundera liked so much. However, linguists have been studying surviving Aboriginal languages intensively for some time, and are mostly agreed that they can be ‘lumped together’ in a small number of dispersed family groups with distinctive features, which suggests that, on arrival, the number of languages was much smaller.

Added to this evidence (if you can call this evidence), is the recent understanding that our species, Homo sapiens, spread out from the African continent in separate waves, from 250,000 years ago to 70,000 years ago. So it seems to me more likely that there was a proto-language, developed in Africa and moving out with one of those waves, and taking over the world, through breeding or cultural exchange, and diversifying with those migrations and their growing cultural diversity. Then again, maybe not.

We used to to describe the world before the emergence of writing as ‘prehistoric’, which seems rather arrogant now, and the word has fallen out of favour. And yet, there is some sense in it. Writing (and drawing) always tells us a story. It provides a record. That’s its intention. It’s the beginning of the modern story, and so, history, in a sense. All of what comes before writing, in the story of humans, is unrecorded, accidental. Scraps of stuff that require a lot of interpretive work. That’s what makes the development of writing such a monumental breakthrough in human affairs. It happened in at least three separate places, only a few thousand years ago. Human language itself, of course has a much longer history. But how much longer? Eighty thousand years? A hundred thousand? Twice that long? Currently, we haven’t a clue. The origin of language is regarded by many authorities as one of the toughest problems in science. It isn’t just a question of when, but of how, where and why. Good luck with answering that lot.

Written by stewart henderson

December 17, 2019 at 11:37 pm

Trump and the USA’s failure, part 1 – some modern history regarding two democratic systems

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It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry. Thomas Paine

So Australia’s getting a tiny mention now in the Trump debacle, as he and his henchmen try desperately to find dirt on Mueller, Biden, anyone they can divert attention to as this iniquitous regime stumbles towards its own doom.
So it seems to me an opportune time to reiterate and expand upon some of my views about the US political and social system which led to this pass.

First, a bit of a history of modern democracy and a corrective, to some of the views I’ve regularly heard on MSNBC and CNN as the journos and other pundits wring their hands over how the mighty have fallen. It seems accepted wisdom in the USA that their country is the leader of the democratic world, the potential bringer of democracy to the unenlightened, the light on the hill, the world’s moral police officer, the first and best of the world’s free nations. And its beginnings are often cited in the War of Independence against a tyrant king. So how could a nation, which owes its very existence to a revolt against tyranny, succumb to the blusterings, badgerings and bullying of this tyrant-child in their midst?

Well, let’s look at this story.  Britain did indeed tyrannise its colony. But let’s take note of some facts. George III was a constitutional monarch. Lord North was Britain’s Prime Minister during the war of independence. A century and a half before the War of Independence, Britain beheaded its king for being a tyrant. It was then ruled for a time by the Long Parliament, and then the Rump Parliament, before Oliver Cromwell was made Lord Protector of the Realm. These were some of the first none too successful steps towards a modern democracy. Baby steps. Two steps forward, one step back you might say. It didn’t work out so well, and the monarchy was restored in 1660, under the proviso that there would be some parliamentary representation. Then in the 1680s another king was forced out of the country, again for being a tyrant, and trying to convert the nation to Catholicism. This Glorious Revolution, as it was called, brought another branch of the royal family in from overseas, and William and Mary Stuart were presented with the crown, and the first constitutional monarchy was formed – though of course Magna Carta had earlier brought about the first limitations to royal authority, and there were more limitations to come in the future. Again, baby steps away from tyranny and towards democracy. A Bill of Rights was introduced in 1689, much of it based on the ideas of the political philosopher John Locke whose work also influenced the American constitution. 

So, America’s War of Independence was a war against tyranny, I grant that, but the tyrant was more a nation, or a government, than a king – though George III was certainly tyrannical in his attitude to the colonies. Britain, at the time, and for a long time afterwards, was a very powerful nation. And – guess what – powerful nations are always bullies. Always. That’s a universal. Imperial Britain was always a bully to its neighbours, and to less powerful nations that it could benefit from exploiting. The USA in more recent times, has been the same, as has China, Russia (or the USSR) and powerful empires of the past, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian Assyrian, etc. It doesn’t matter their internal politics – they’re always bullies on the international stage. That’s why more powerful international agencies are needed and are just beginning to arise.

So getting back to democracy – the first US Presidential election was an odd one, as there was only one candidate – Washington. There were no parties, and very few states, and even then only about 7% of the adult population of those few states were considered eligible to vote, based on the possession of property (and of course skin colour, and gender). So, one of the bigger baby steps towards democracy, perhaps, but still another baby step. Of course, parliamentary membership in Britain at the time was subject to a vote, but also with a very limited franchise. 

So The USA significantly contributed to modern democracy, without a doubt, but the whole democratic movement proceeded by baby steps worldwide. For example, it’s surely unarguable that no nation or state could consider itself an effective democracy until it gave women – half the effing population! – the vote, and the USA was far from the first nation to do so. In fact the first state of any kind to do so was New Zealand in 1893, followed by the colony of South Australia – my home, from which I’m writing – in 1894. The USA didn’t grant the vote to women until 1920. 

So enough about democracy for now, but one reason I brought this up was to sort of complain a bit about American jingoism. You’re a really flag-waving, breast-beating country, and you tend to go on about patriotism as some kind of fundamental value. I say you because, though I have precious few readers, by far the majority of them come from the US, according to my WordPress data. Now, this kind of jingoism doesn’t allow for too much healthy self -analysis and critical distance. You need to get out more. I live in Australia, I was born in Scotland, so I’m a dual citizen of the UK and Australia, but I barely have a nationalistic cell in my body. I’ve never waved a flag in my life, never sung a national anthem. Nowadays I call myself a humanist, but I really came to that idea much later – my kind of visceral discomfort and dislike of nationalism goes back to my childhood, I can’t easily explain it, and any explanation would be post-hoc rationalism. I’m happy in any case that my humanism chimes with modern times, as we live in a more global and integrated world than ever before, but I do recognise that nations are still necessary and useful, and that global government will probably always remain an Einsteinian pipe-dream.

In any case, I feel lucky that I’ve spent most of my life here in Australia. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is a group of 35-40 countries, the most developed economies in the world – the world’s richest countries by GDP. Every year for several years now, they’ve rated the member countries on a ‘Better Life Index’ based on 11 different criteria, such as health, income, safety, job opportunities and so on. Basically, a rating of the best countries in the world to live in. A new rating has just come out, and Australia ranks at number two, up from number three last year, but down from number one the year before, and the year before that. So lucky me, though I have plenty of criticisms about the way this country is going. So how does the USA rate? Well, it’s never been number one, or two, or three or four or five or six, and I could go on – which isn’t to say it’s anywhere near the bottom. But could this just be anti-American bias from the OECD? Well, in a sense yes, because I suspect they’re biased towards nations or states that look after their citizens – where there’s more of a sense of communal values. They measure categories such as ‘civic engagement’, ‘community’, ‘environment’ and ‘work-life balance’, categories which step a little beyond individual rights and freedoms – and I think that’s a good thing.

So here’s how I see the problem. The USA seems a little overly obsessed with the individual, and that seems to put it a little out on the libertarian end of the spectrum that stretches from libertarians to communists. I’d argue that there’s never been any instantiation of a communist state or a libertarian non-state – and in a democracy, which is by its nature a bottom-up sort of system, which has to cater for a wide range of views about government, you should always expect to be swinging mildly in the centre between these extremes. But America’s focus on individual freedoms and the great individual leader was evident from the outset, with the way it set up its federal political system. My plan here is to compare it to the Westminster system which I know quite well, and which has sort of evolved slowly rather than being set in stone by an all-powerful 18th century constitution.

Under the Westminster system there’s no directly elected President. Of course, that system did begin with a great individual power, the unelected, hereditary monarch, who, in the time of the USA’s founding and the drawing up of its constitution, was a lot more powerful than today’s monarch. So it seems to have been the thinking of the founding fathers that you could have this powerful figure but he could be elected. And I do say ‘he’ because, be honest, there’s nothing in the thinking of the founding fathers to suggest that they would ever have contemplated a female President. So, remembering that many of the ideas of the founding fathers actually came from Britain, through the likes of John Locke and Tom Paine, their idea seemed to be something like a constitutional President, elected rather than blue-blooded, and hedged around by a parliament that was more constitutionally powerful than the parliament of the time back in the old ‘mother country’. And by the way, it slightly irritates me that there’s this lexical difference for the legislature in the USA versus Britain/Australia, i.e congress/parliament. They’re really the same thing and I wish they had the same name. From now on I’ll use the term ‘parliament’ to refer to the legislative branch under both systems.

So, it seems – and I’m by no means an expert on the US constitution – that the constitution was drawn up to create a kind of balance of power between three branches of law and government – the legislative, the executive and the judiciary. And this would have been quite revolutionary and progressive in its time, some two hundred odd years ago. In fact, the founding fathers may have seen it as so progressive and all-encompassing that the term ‘eternal’ might have been whispered about, like the eternal values of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And so they may have suffered from that natural pride which assumed that the constitution ought not to be altered without difficulty, and so the USA has largely been stuck with it. And I should point out – because it strikes non-Americans as a bit weird – that Americans seem a bit overly obsessed with their constitution.

Okay, so I’ll leave it there for now. Next time I’ll focus a bit more on the Westminster system, and a comparison between Prime Ministers and Presidents.

Written by stewart henderson

October 4, 2019 at 1:20 pm